Using a Roth for college: hazards and benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I have been putting 5% and 6%, respectively, into our 401(k) accounts to get our full company matches. We’re also maxing out our Roth IRAs.

The CPA who does our taxes recommended that we put more money into our 401(k)s even if that would mean putting less into our Roth IRAs. We’re also expecting our first child, and our CPA said he doesn’t like 529 plans.

What’s your opinion on us increasing our 401(k)s by the amount we’d intended to put into a 529, while still maxing out our Roths, and then using our Roth contributions (not earnings) to pay for our child’s college (assuming he goes on to higher education)?

Our CPA liked that idea, but I can’t find anything online that says anyone else is doing things this way. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a catch.

Answer: Other people are indeed doing this, and there’s a big catch: You’d be using money for college that may do you a lot more good in retirement.

Contributions to Roth IRAs are, as you know, not tax deductible, but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without paying taxes or penalties. In retirement, your gains can be withdrawn tax free. Having money in tax-free as well as taxable and tax-deferred accounts gives you greater ability to control your tax bill in retirement.

Also, unlike other retirement accounts, you’re not required to start distributions after age 70 1/2. If you don’t need the money, you can continue to let it grow tax free and leave the whole thing to your heirs, if you want.

That’s a lot of flexibility to give up, and sucking out your contributions early will stunt how much more the accounts can grow.

You’d also miss out on the chance to let future returns help increase your college fund.

Let’s say you contribute $11,000 a year to your Roths ($5,500 each, the current limit). If you withdraw all your contributions after 18 years, you’d have $198,000 (any investment gains would stay in the account to avoid early-withdrawal fees).

Impressive, yes, but if you’d invested that money instead in a 529 and got 6% average annual returns, you could have $339,000. At 8%, the total is $411,000. That may be far more than you need — or it may not be, if you have more than one child or want to help with graduate school. With elite colleges costing $60,000 a year now and likely much more in the future, you may want all the growth you can get.

You didn’t say why your CPA doesn’t like 529s, but they’re a pretty good way for most families to save for college. Withdrawals are tax free when used for higher education and there is a huge array of plans to choose from, since every state except Wyoming offers at least one of these programs and most have multiple investment options.

Clearly, this is complicated, and you probably should run it past a certified financial planner or a CPA who has the personal financial specialist designation. Your CPA may be a great guy, but unless he’s had training in financial planning, he may not be a great choice for comprehensive financial advice.

It’s National 529 Day!

College studentWho doesn’t love obscure commemorative/promotional days? But this one is worthwhile since it brings attention to the state-run college savings plans that can help you pay for your children’s future education.

Here are the most important facts you need to know about college savings:

If you can save for college, you probably should. The higher your income, the more the financial aid formulas will expect you to have saved for college–even if you haven’t actually saved a dime. Even people who consider themselves middle class are often shocked by how much schools expect them to contribute toward the cost of education. (By the way, it’s the parents’ assets and income that determine financial aid, so if you don’t help your kid with college costs, he or she could be really screwed–no money for school and perhaps no hope of need-based financial aid.)

More savings=less debt. Most financial aid is in the form of loans these days, so your saving now will reduce your kid’s debt later. (A CFP once told me to substitute the words “massive debt” when I see “financial aid.” So when you say, “I want my child to get the most financial aid possible,” I hear: “I want my child to get the most massive debt possible.”

529 plans get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. These accounts are presumed owned by the parent, so less you’re expected to spend less than 6% of the total each year–compared to 35% of student-owned assets.

Learn more by reading “The best and worst 529 plans” and this primer on Motley Fool.

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Don’t put college savings into custodial accounts

Dear Liz: I opened Uniform Transfers to Minors Act savings accounts for my two boys (now 7 and 10) when they were newborns. I chose not to go with the 529 college savings accounts because I didn’t like the restriction that the money had to be used for education. It has always been my intention to use these funds for college, but if they choose not to go to college, then it could be used to help them purchase their first homes, for example.

I’ve been squirreling away a couple hundred dollars each month in each account, but I read a few of your previous pieces and think maybe the UTMA accounts were not the best vehicle for this. Could they one day just demand the money and do with it whatever they want?

Answer: The short answer is yes. In most states, the money will become theirs at age 21 to spend however they want, although a few states let them have it at 18.

The other big disadvantage to custodial accounts such as UTMA and UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) accounts is that they’re counted as the child’s asset in financial aid calculations. That can substantially reduce the amount of aid they get.

But even more important than the financial details is your attitude. You need to give up this notion that not going to college is a reasonable option for your kids. In the 21st century, some kind of post-secondary education is all but a necessity for a person to remain in the middle class, labor economists tell us. Your sons don’t have to study at a four-year school, but they are likely to need at least some vocational training beyond high school.

If you want to reduce the effect of these accounts on any future financial aid packages, you have a couple of options. One is to spend the money before they get to college, although that’s probably not the route you’ll want to take, given how much money you’ve already saved. If the accounts were smaller, you might just use them to buy a computer, pay for summer camp or cover the cost of tutoring. Such expenditures are allowed as long as the money is spent for the benefit of the child and doesn’t pay for expenses that are your obligation as a parent (food, shelter, clothing, medical care).

Another option is to liquidate the accounts and invest the cash in 529 plans. This would dramatically reduce the money’s effect on financial aid calculations, since it would be considered your asset rather than your child’s. The money could be withdrawn tax free to pay for qualified higher education expenses. If it’s not used for higher education, the contribution portion of the withdrawal won’t be taxed as income, but any earnings will be, plus there will be a 10% federal tax penalty on those earnings.

If you decide to transfer the money, the 529 account should be titled the same way as your UTMA accounts, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college planning website FinAid. Ownership of the account shifts to the child when he reaches the age the UTMA account would have terminated. That gives him control of the money if it’s not spent on education, but he would have had that anyway. You can read more about the details at http://www.finaid.org/savings/ugma.phtml.